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Introduction to the Book of 1 Corinthians

Julian Spriggs M.A.

For information about the city of Corinth, and its religions and culture in the first century, please go to the Corinth page in the NT Background section.

The church in Corinth

The two most important cities visited by Paul were Corinth and Ephesus. In both cities he stayed for a longer period, in order to establish the church, so it would then be equipped to take the responsibility to evangelise the surrounding area. Paul would have been attracted by Corinth’s strategic location as a centre from which to spread the Gospel. From the record in the Book of Acts, and from Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians, we have a good amount of information about the establishment of the church in Corinth and Paul’s continuing troubled relationship with them.

The church was founded by Paul during his Second Missionary Journey. He left Macedonia, where he had faced stiff opposition from the Jews, and came to Athens, where people had laughed at him for preaching about the resurrection of the dead. He left Athens and came to Corinth, where he stayed eighteen months in AD 50-51. During this stay in Corinth, he wrote his two letters to the Thessalonians. We can understand from the reputation of Corinth, why Paul was in Corinth in "much fear and trembling" (1 Cor 2:3). It would have been a great challenge to see the Gospel successfully brought to such a difficult, wealthy, sex-ridden, immoral city. Luke gives a detailed description of Paul's first visit to Corinth and the establishment of the church on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 18:1-21).

On his arrival, he stayed with Priscilla and Aquila, and worked with them at tent-making (18:1-3). They were probably already Christians, who had been expelled from Rome in AD 49, by the edict of Claudius. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome, because “they were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus” (Claudius 25:4). It is normally assumed that Suetonius mistakenly confused Chrestus with Christus, as these two names are pronounced the same in Greek. It would appear that the riots were over whether Jesus was the Messiah or not. All Jews, whether believers in Jesus or not, had to leave Rome following the edict. Priscilla and Aquila became important members of Paul’s ministry team for many years and are named in several of his letters. They were loyal friends and beloved co-workers with Paul who often gave him great encouragement. Paul expressed his gratitude to them for saving his life on one occasion (Rom 16:4). They are always named together, normally with Priscilla named before her husband, perhaps either because she was the more prominent personality, or because she was more highly born. Paul took them with him when he left Corinth to go to Ephesus (18:19), where they ministered to Apollos (18:24). They had returned to Rome where they were hosts to a church by the time Paul wrote his letter there (Rom 16:3-5), and were later again back in Ephesus (2 Tim 4:19). We should notice that Luke records that Paul worked to earn money while he stayed in Corinth. This became an issue that Paul later addressed in his letters to Corinth.

In Corinth, Paul continued his normal pattern of ministry, starting with preaching the Gospel to the Jews in the synagogue, and later turning to Gentiles in the marketplace. Each Sabbath he argued with the Jews in the synagogue, testifying that the Messiah was Jesus (18:4-5). From the message he preached in Pisidian Antioch on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:16-41), we can see that he would demonstrate that the prophecies in the Old Testament had been fulfilled by Jesus.

He was joined by Silas and Timothy (18:5) who he had left behind in Macedonia (Acts 17:14). They brought good news from Thessalonica, that the new believers there were standing firm in the Lord in the face of persecution, which brought great joy to Paul (1 Thess 3:6-10). They probably also brought him a gift from the churches in Macedonia and Philippi (2 Cor 11:9). Paul is grateful that the church in Philippi sent him gifts several times (Phil 4:16). This enabled him to devote himself full-time to preaching. We should notice that he received financial support from the churches in Macedonia, and did not burden the Corinthian church (2 Cor 11:9). This caused some in the church to have questions about Paul’s status as a preacher, which Paul answers in 1 Cor 8-9.

Opposition from the Jews prevented Paul from preaching in the synagogue, so he shook the dust out of his clothes and went to the Gentiles (18:6). This was a highly symbolic gesture. Jews believed that even the earth in Gentile land was unclean, so when returning from non-Jewish land, they would shake the dust from their feet and clothes to avoid bringing unclean dust into the land of Israel. Jesus told his disciples to do this when people in Jewish towns and villages did not welcome them or the message of the good news (Mt 10:14). He was effectively telling his disciples to treat the unbelieving Jews as unclean Gentiles, cut off from the true people of God. Paul saw that he had fulfilled his responsibility to the Jews. He was now breaking fellowship with them, and declared that he was free of blame if they rejected the good news that he brought.

Paul probably continued to be an annoyance to the synagogue when he moved to the house next door which belonged to a god-fearer called Titus Justus (18:7), who had been converted through Paul’s ministry. He would have been a Gentile who had become dissatisfied with paganism, and attracted to the monotheism and high morals of the Jews. He regularly attended the synagogue services, but had not made the huge step of becoming a proselyte. Luke records that in many of the synagogues that Paul visited there were a number of these god-fearers. Many of them responded quickly to the good news preached by Paul, as they saw the Gospel as the answer to their searching. However the conversion of these god-fearers caused great anger and jealously from the Jews.

Many scholars have identified Titus Justus as the same person as the Gaius who was one of the few people that Paul said he baptised personally (1 Cor 1:14). Gaius was also the host for Paul in Corinth when he wrote to the Romans (Rom 16:23), and the church in Corinth met in his house. Roman citizens had three names: a praenomen, a nomen and a cognomen. The names “Titus and Justus” would have been the nomen and cognomen, leaving the question of what his praenomen was. It cannot be proved that this was Gaius, but it seems possible. As a Roman citizen he would have probably been a wealthy individual, with a house large enough for the church to meet in.

Even Crispus, who was the ruler of the synagogue, together with his family, left the synagogue and became a believer (18:8), and was one of the three early converts baptised by Paul (1 Cor 1:14), together with many other Corinthians. The departure of Crispus would have been a great loss to the synagogue, and would have angered the Jews even more.

The Lord spoke to Paul one night in a vision, telling him not to be afraid, and encouraging him, saying that he will not be physically harmed in Corinth, and that God had many people in the city. Even though there was opposition from the Jews, God will protect Paul and give him success in the preaching of the Gospel and establishing a church there. This would be an encouragement to Paul, especially after strong opposition from the Jews had forced him to leave Philippi, Thessalonica and Beroea sooner than he would have wished. Also he had just arrived from Athens where he received a sceptical response from the Greeks there. Paul recalled that he came to Corinth full of trepidation, “in fear and much trembling” (1 Cor 2:3). After this vision, Paul stayed a further eighteen months, teaching and building up the church.

The trial before Gallio

When a new proconsul of Achaia was appointed, the Jews took the opportunity to bring a new attack against Paul (18:12-17), by making a direct legal charge against Paul. Gallio was appointed proconsul of Achaia in July A.D. 51, and left in A.D. 52, giving an exact date for Paul's trial before Gallio of July A.D. 51 or shortly after. Gallio was known for his amiable character and wit, so perhaps the Jews thought he would be sympathetic to them. In his vision Paul had been promised that the opposition would not succeed in harming him, and the decision by Gallio confirmed this promise.

This was a very significant judgement in favour of the Christians. The Jews accused Paul of preaching an illegal religion. Under Roman law Judaism was a protected legal religion. The Jewish leaders claimed that Paul’s message was not true Judaism, and therefore should not come under Roman legal protection. If successful, Paul would have been prohibited from continuing to preach the Gospel, and would have probably been punished for his previous activities. Without even hearing Paul’s defence, Gallio did not think that Paul had committed any crime against the Roman state, and refused to act as judge over words or names in the Jewish law. Gallio did not see Christianity as a new religion, but merely a new interpretation of the Jewish religion which the Jewish leaders in Corinth did not happen to agree with. Because Gallio was a prominent figure in the Roman government and because his brother Seneca had influence with the emperor, his decision would have become a strong legal precedent to other Roman governors.

The decision by Gallio was one of the more significant examples of a theme observed a number of times through the Book of Acts, that much of the opposition came from the Jews, but Paul came under the protection of the Romans. The Roman state saw that the Christians were merely yet another group within Judaism, and therefore had the same legal status. This status remained until after the fire of Rome in A.D. 64, when Nero blamed the Christians for starting the fire. Christianity then became an illegal religion distinct from Judaism under Roman law, so persecution could take place at any time. Also by this time it would have become obvious to the Roman authorities that Christianity was no longer an exclusively Jewish group, as so many Gentiles had joined the church.

Gallio took no notice when the bystanders turned against Sosthenes, the new ruler of the synagogue and beat him up (18:17). This beating may have been the turning point in his life, as someone named Sosthenes is named at the beginning of 1 Corinthians (1:1). We cannot prove that this is the same person, however Sosthenes is not a common name. But if so, he was with Paul when he wrote to Corinth, possibly acting as his secretary.

Following this victory and silencing of the opposition, Luke records that Paul stayed a considerable time in Corinth, probably until the spring or summer of the following year, A.D. 52. Paul made some sort of vow in Corinth, as he cut off his hair in Cenchreae, the port of Corinth (18:18). This may have been a private vow, similar to a Nazarite vow, perhaps in thanksgiving of the promise of divine protection (18:10) which was fulfilled in Gallio’s legal decision. Paul left Corinth for Caesarea, taking Priscilla and Aquila, who he left in Ephesus, and went up to greet the church in Jerusalem before returning to Antioch, to complete the second missionary journey (18:19-22).

Paul sailed from the eastern port of Cenchreae when he left Corinth (Acts 18:18). Phoebe was a deaconess from the church in Cenchreae, who probably carried the letter to the Romans to Rome from Corinth (Rom 16:1). Paul urged the Roman church to welcome her.

At the start of the third missionary journey, Paul visited Galatia on his way to Ephesus, where he ministered for three years and evangelised the roman province of Asia, AD 52-55 (18:22 - 19:41). While in Ephesus, Paul had a continuing correspondence with the church in Corinth.

The arrival of Apollos

Sometime after Paul left Corinth, Apollos arrived there. Luke describes him as a native of Alexandria, eloquent and well-versed in the Scriptures, who spoke with burning enthusiasm (Acts 18:24). Alexandria was a major centre of education and philosophy, the residence of Philo, the Jewish philosopher. The Alexandrian school tended to express Jewish belief in terms of Greek philosophy and make extensive use of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. In Alexandria, Apollos would have been trained in eloquent speaking and skill in debating opponents. However what we know of early Christianity in Alexandria was it was characterised by some gnostic beliefs, so it is not surprising that Apollos had a defective understanding of Christian doctrine. It is difficult to be sure exactly what Apollos believed before he was corrected by Priscilla and Aquila. Luke said that he only knew of the baptism of John, but there is no record of him receiving Christian baptism from Priscilla and Aquila. The believers in Ephesus wrote letters of recommendation to the churches in Achaia, which would particularly include Corinth.

While in Corinth, he had an effective ministry, as he could argue successfully with the Jews, proving from the Scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus (19:28). He had great knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures (our O.T.), and was skilful at proclaiming the message of the Messiah in the power of the Holy Spirit. The more educated and intellectual people in the church would have been attracted to Apollos, admiring his speaking skills. Some would have seen him as superior to Paul, who probably lacked his presence and speaking ability (2 Cor 10:10). Paul saw no competition between himself and Apollos, saying what Paul planted, Apollos watered (1 Cor 3:6).

It appears that Peter had also visited Corinth at some point (1:12, 3:22, 9:5), who would have attracted the sailors and fishermen. Divisions in the church arose after the ministries of Apollos and Peter (1:12), with different factions preferring their favourite leader.

The social and racial composition of the church

The Christians in Corinth would have come from many different backgrounds and mirrored the racial and social composition of the city. Paul mentions this mixed composition of the church saying that Jews, Greeks, slaves and free were all baptised into one body (1 Cor 12:13). There were some converted Jews, but the church and city was mostly Gentile. These would include some Gentile god-fearers who previously attended the synagogue. The three Jews named in the letter, Aquila, Priscilla and Crispus, all have Latin names. Other people were probably Romans, including Fortunatus, Quartus, Gaius and Titus Justus, while others were Greek, including Stephanus, Achaicus and Erastus. Some would have been sailors or fishermen, who were previously worshippers of Poseidon. Corinth had many wealthy traders and merchants, who were members of their particular trade guild. There would also be athletes who participated in the Isthmusian Games. There would be a few highly educated Greek philosophers, who sought wisdom and knowledge. The majority of the church would have been illiterate workers, most of whom would have been slaves (1 Cor 7:20-24). Paul gives a hint of the social composition of the church when he says that not many were wise, powerful or of noble birth (1 Cor 1:26). However some were more wealthy and prominent in society, like Gaius, Erastus (Rom 16:23) and Chloe (1 Cor 1:11), and the wealthy status of some is shown by their regular attendance at private banquets and engaging in lawsuits (1 Cor 6). However the distinctions in wealth and status were causing divisions during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17-34).

The previous lives of the church members would also suggest a Gentile background. Paul said they were previously idolaters and sexually immoral (6:10-11), accustomed to eating food offered to idols (8:7), and previously were led astray to dumb idols (12:2). The problem of attending temple feasts would be an exclusively Gentile temptation (ch 8-10), and no Jew would ever go to a Gentile for judgement in a legal case (ch 6). The questions about visiting prostitutes (6:12-20) or the denial of a future resurrection (ch 15) would be Greek questions, not Jewish.

In summary, the church would have been predominantly Gentile, with a few Jews. Most would have been poorer people, including slaves, with two or three wealthy families. Coming from a pagan Gentile background, they would have been soaked in a Hellenistic world-view, particularly in their morals and ethics. As someone said, “There was a church in Corinth, but too much of Corinth in the church”. Paul had preached the Gospel in Corinth and established a church there, but many of the attitudes and behaviour of the Christians were not compatible with their new faith. The aim of this letter was to bring truth to these believers and train them into more godly attitudes and actions.

Authorship of the letter

Amongst scholars, there has been very little doubt that this is a genuine letter by Paul. There have been very few questions over the authorship when compared with other letters such as Ephesians or the Pastoral Letters. The earliest quotation of 1 Corinthians is by Clement of Rome writing in A.D. 95, who says it is by Paul and refers to Paul’s relationship with the church. It is also quoted hundreds of times by many of the church fathers, including Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus.

Occasion of the letter

When studying any of Paul’s letters, we need to ask why Paul wrote it. Through the book of 1 Corinthians he addresses several different issues, including marriage, spiritual gifts, the resurrection, eating food offered to idols, and the Lord’s supper. At first sight these can seem to be issues with little in common with each other. The question remains of what is the basic issue being addressed. What is it that ties the book together?

Following his first visit to Corinth, Paul had a difficult on-going relationship with the church. He paid several visits, and wrote at least four letters, two of which are included in the N.T.

As we have seen, Paul established the church in Corinth on 2nd Missionary Journey (AD 51-52). He stayed eighteen months, then left for Ephesus (Acts 18:1-18).

He wrote a strong letter to the church in Corinth, warning them not to associate with immoral men (1 Cor 5:9). People misunderstood this letter, thinking Paul meant immoral unbelievers, and used it as an excuse to judge outsiders, withdrawing from contact with the world. However, Paul wanted them to exercise discipline in the church to exclude immoral believers (1 Cor 5:10-11). This letter is probably lost, but some suggest that part of it is included as 2 Cor 6:14 - 7:1, which appears to be a digression to the main flow of the letter. This was his first letter to Corinth, sometimes called the “previous letter”. We do not know anything else about this letter, or what prompted Paul to write it.

Later he received reports from Corinth from Chloe’s people that there were serious problems in the church. These were about misunderstandings over his first letter as well as divisions, disorder and contentions in the church (1 Cor 1:11). Some were caused by factionalism following visits by Apollos and Peter. They also told him about the glorification of Christian leaders, as well as bad behaviour at the Lord's Table (11:18), a severe case of immorality in the church (5:1), lawsuits between believers (6:1-11), and the misuse of Christian freedom as licence for immorality (6:12-20). Most of the first six chapters of 1 Corinthians were written in response to these reports, together with the second part of chapter 11.

Paul then received a letter from Corinth. This letter was probably carried to Paul by Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:17-18). In this, they asked questions about celibacy and marriage, food offered to idols, spiritual gifts, as well as expressing their views on these things, which Paul would need to correct. In the second part of 1 Corinthians he responds to the questions by saying, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote" (1 Cor 7:1). Each of the topics answered begin with, “now concerning"

7:1 The matters about which you wrote - marriage
7:25 Virgins
8:1 Food offered to idols
12:1 Spiritual gifts
16:1 The collection for the saints in Jerusalem
16:12 A second visit by Apollos

At some point before writing 1 Corinthians he had sent Timothy to Corinth to remind them of Paul’s ways in Christ Jesus (4:17). This was probably the time he sent Timothy to Macedonia (Acts 19:22). He encourages the church to receive Timothy well and not to despise him (16:10-11).

1 Corinthians was actually his second letter to the church. Paul wrote it towards the end of his stay in Ephesus, when he was planning to move on to Macedonia (16:8). This was on his third missionary journey (Acts 19), when he spent over two years there. The date would be around A.D. 54 - 55. The letter was probably carried by Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus (1 Cor 16:15-18) on their return journey to Corinth.

Correspondence after 1 Corinthians

The situation in the Corinthian church was not good, some in the church were rejecting Paul's authority as an apostle. The relationship between Paul and the church seems to deteriorate rapidly and sometime later Paul felt it necessary to pay a visit to Corinth. This was his second visit to Corinth, when he stayed only briefly, travelling directly to Corinth from Ephesus. There is no mention of this visit in Acts, but it would have been at some point during his stay in Ephesus (Acts 19). Paul refers to it as his painful visit (2 Cor 2:1, 13:1-2). It appears that it was a painful confrontation with the church when harsh words were spoken.

Soon after the painful visit, he wrote what is known as his “severe letter”, which he wrote out of much distress, anguish and tears, and which caused grief in the church (2 Cor 2:4). This was carried by Titus. It expressed a pastor's heart for his people, "I wrote to you out of anguish, pain and tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depths of my love for you". It was a weighty, frightening, powerful rebuke (10:8-9), written to see if they would repent and recognize his apostolic authority (2:2, 7:8). This letter is probably also lost, although some scholars suggest it is included as 2 Cor 10-13.

Paul left Ephesus (Acts 20:1), and anxiously waited for Titus at Troas so he could hear how his letter had been received (2 Cor 2:12). When Titus did not come, Paul moved on to Macedonia (2 Cor 2:13, 7:5), where he met Titus and was comforted by the good news that they had responded well to the letter (2 Cor 7:5-15). But he brought news of newly arrived false teachers, who he sarcastically calls "super-apostles", who rejected Paul's authority and turned much of the church against him (2 Cor 10-12).

His fourth letter, which is included in the N.T. as 2 Corinthians was written from Macedonia in A.D. 55, in response to the good news brought by Titus. Timothy was now back with Paul (1:1). It was a letter of reconciliation, in which he expressed his relief and joy at the success of his severe letter. He also defended his apostleship against the "super apostles", and explained his change of plans. He encouraged them to be ready for his third visit, to have the offering for Jerusalem ready (ch 8-9) and that unrighteousness would have been dealt with, so Paul would not have to carry out his threats (13:2,10).

Towards the end of the first century, another letter was written to the church in Corinth by Clement, who was the bishop of Rome. In it he addresses the same sort of divisions in the church that Paul addressed, saying that they are even worse than those at the time of Paul. Some of the younger men in the church had deposed the older leadership. The letter of 1 Clement was written in response, while at the same time mediators were sent from Rome in an attempt to restore peace in the Corinthian church. Although not included in the N.T., 1 Clement is preserved as one the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

The influence of Greek thinking in the Corinthian church

The main problem in the church seems to be that the Corinthian believers were continuing to think and live according to their Greek cultural background. They needed to be renewed in their thinking and their ethical behaviour. As we noted before, "There was a church in Corinth, but there was too much of Corinth in the church.”

In the first four chapters Paul addresses the deeper issues behind the problems in the church in Corinth. Problems such as the poor moral standards in the church, the question of whether they should eat food offered to idols, the over-emphasis on the gift of tongues, and rejection of a future resurrection were only the symptoms of a deeper issue. So instead of attempting to cure the symptoms, Paul begins with the root cause. If he can change their fundamental way of thinking from their Greek world-view to a more Biblical world-view, then the moral and ethical issues will begin to fall into place.

So at the start of his letter he addresses the fundamental questions, "What does it mean to be wise and what does it mean to be spiritual?", seeking to change their understanding from the Greek concept of wisdom and spirituality to a more godly perspective. The believers had come to faith in Christ, but now was the time for them to have their minds renewed (Rom 12:1-2). “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect”.

Jewish and Greek thought

There are two fundamentally different ways of looking at the world: Jewish and Greek. In the New Testament, we see how these two worlds meet, and how the Gospel seeks to transform both.

In Jewish thinking, and most Eastern ways of thinking, to know something is to believe it, so experience is important. Believing something is not sufficient on its own, it was also necessary to live it. The Hebrews had to keep the law to show their love to God. Jesus said we need to love him and obey his commandments (Jn 14:15). Jews were integrated thinkers. Life was seen as a whole with everything interrelated. Life was not divided into different compartments. This is seen in the arrangement of the laws in the law of Moses. There are not arranged in neat categories, but the laws concerning all different aspects of life are mixed, whether criminal law, moral laws or ritual laws. Jewish life was far more down-to-earth and practical than Greek life. A person was not permitted to become a Jewish teacher or member of the Sanhedrin unless he was married, and all pharisees had to have a trade.

In Greek thinking, head knowledge is seen as more important, knowing the facts is all important. For a Greek, it is enough just to believe something, you didn't have to do it. Thinking was in categories. Life was subdivided into separate parts which have little or no connection with each other. Belief systems did not necessarily lead to change in lifestyle. This led to the division between the sacred and the secular still seen today. Most western ways of thinking are essentially Greek, because western education is based on Latin and Greek education systems.

The Greek philosophers tended to have a very negative perspective of the physical world and of the human body. Plato taught that god was the ultimate principle of form and order, and was not personal. He said that the earth was an inferior place, and that God was far removed from creation. Therefore the earth must have been created by a lesser spiritual being. God would be defiled if he ever came to the earth. Plato also taught that the material or physical world was merely a shadow of the real spiritual world. Aristotle taught that God was so transcendent, that he didn't even know that the world existed.

This led to a strong dualism, making a distinction and separation of the spiritual from the physical. The spiritual was seen as the real world, and the material world as either evil, or not relevant. The material world was merely a shadow of the spiritual reality. The aim in Greek thinking was to move from the material world into the world of the spirit. Death was seen as an escape from the body into the pure realm of the spirit, so there was no future for the body after death.

This dualism became a foundation and fundamental part of Gnostic belief, which developed from it later in the first century and especially into the second century, when it became a major threat to the Christian Gospel. However, at the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians, Gnosticism was yet to develop to its fullest extent, so it is not correct to say that 1 Corinthians was addressing Gnosticism.

The Bible is essentially an eastern Jewish book, set in a Jewish way of thinking, but comes in contact with Greek thinking, especially in the N.T. Over the centuries, the church unfortunately threw out Jewish thinking, so Greek thinking has deeply affected today's church, as well as our nations and the way we were educated. The influential Thomas Aquinas said that, "Revelation is for Sunday, reason is for Monday", thus increasing the sacred / secular division in the church.

The distinction between the two world-views is seen in Paul’s comment: "For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Cor 1:22-24). The Jews want signs, something they can experience, while the Greeks want wisdom, a new form of teaching which they can debate and argue over. James challenged the Greek approach when he taught that faith without works is dead (James 2:17), and teaching that we have to be doers of the word, not hearers only (1:22).

The believers in Corinth had been brought up in a Greek way of thinking, and therefore interpreted Paul’s Gospel message and reacted to him personally from the perspective of their Greek world-view and culture.

For a deeper study, I have written a book on 1 Corinthians called Chaos in Corinth. Details are on the Julian's Books page.


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